What's wrong with female desire?

It may be hard to treat a woman's sex drive disorder -- but it's even tougher to define


Tracy Clark-Flory
December 1, 2009 4:35AM (UTC)

Scientists have scanned women's brains and wired their genitals to measure arousal. They have meticulously cataloged the most intimate of feminine experiences and yearnings -- and yet these detectives in lab coats haven't been able to map the fingerprint of female desire. It's an unsolved mystery. Still, there is plenty intriguing evidence to sift through and competing theories to consider. Case in point: The New York Times Magazine feature on ladies who "want to want" -- or, put in technical terms, women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder.

The search for a "female Viagra" makes clear that there is no easy fix -- but writer Daniel Bergner points out that there isn't an easy definition of the condition, either. The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (D.S.M.) defines it as "persistently or recurrently deficient (or absent) sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity." These are women who can become physically aroused but mentally just aren't going there all that often. An essential element of the diagnosis is that a patient is "distressed" by these symptoms, he explains. In other words, it's only a problem if you think it's a problem. An interesting paradox arises: Does the act of defining hypoactive sexual desire disorder play a part in creating and reinforcing the condition?

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Critics argue that the "distress stems not from within the individual but from the infliction of societal standards, from the culture’s disapproval and aversion." To make this point, Bergner invokes "icons in heat" like "the model with swollen red lips gazing out with molten need from the billboard." From the libidinous lass selling cologne, aftershave, or [insert any product under the sun] to the exaggerated moans of porno flicks, we fetishize enthusiastic female availability. On a day-to-day basis, that degree of spontaneous chest-heaving -- not to mention multiple orgasms at the touch of a (cough) button --  isn't realistic, generally. By those standards, most women would feel "deficient."

There's an important distinction to make here, though: We fetishize eager female availability, but not self-directed female desire. When we talk about sex "icons in heat," we're specifically talking about women who are prone and receptive. Culturally, truly libidinous women are not only treated as unsexy, they're considered abnormal. They're fucking scary! Maybe for some women it isn't that they feel a lack of sexual desire, per se, but an absence of a particular type of desire they think they're supposed to have. (Nowhere in the article is masturbation mentioned, by the way.)

Lori Brotto is the 34-year-old psychologist tasked with defining hypoactive sexual desire disorder for the next D.S.M., and she's aware of the sticky issues. She has proposed adding the symptom of not being "receptive to a partner’s attempts to initiate" to the criteria for diagnosis -- which only raises the additional issue of the role a woman's partner plays. Brotto would also like to do away with the word "desire" altogether: She's consciously moving away from a "male" model for sexual desire toward her colleague Rosemary Basson's "Sexual Response Cycle," which characterizes female desire as coming after arousal. Basson argues that women often commit to the idea of sex and display a "willingness to be receptive" to their partners' advances. Only after foreplay gets a woman aroused does she become hungry with desire, says Basson.

The "male" and "female" model seem pretty interchangeable to me. In a long-term sexual relationship people often take turns being receptive to each other's advances. Sometimes you've had a crap day at the office and you're just not into it -- until your lovah touches you just like so. That isn't a strictly male or female thing -- it's just a human thing. On a similar note, both sexes are under pressure to perform in very different ways, and when there is all that play-acting going on, it's no surprise that some are left unsatisfied -- not to mention unenthusiastic about a repeat performance.

The truth is female sexuality isn't easily categorized into "normal" and "abnormal" -- it's variable and idiosyncratic. There is no definitive all-purpose map; the best we've got is a caricature. As is often the case with such things, many women will look at this sketch and exclaim: That doesn't look like me at all!


Tracy Clark-Flory

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